#1…Southern Luzon – 11th Airborne and the 158th RCT…

Three terrain complexes dominate southern Luzon: the Lake Taal Upland on the west, the Mt. Banahao District to the east, and the Batangas Mountains on the south-central coast. The great caldera, or volcanic depression of Lake Taal, centering forty miles south of Manila, is fourteen miles long north to south and about eight miles wide. Nearly surrounded by a steep rim, Lake Taal drains into the northeastern corner of Balayan Bay. Rocky, alternating ridges and gullies, radiating like the spokes of a wheel from the encircling escarpment, inhibit movement around the caldera.

Mt. Banahao, like the Lake Taal caldera, is another volcanic formation, but one that rises sharply from surrounding flat ground. Dominating the eastern section of southern Luzon, 7,150-foot-high Mt. Banahao drops off to Laguna de Bay on the north and to Tayabas Bay on the south. Its eastern slopes fall away to a saddle leading to the southern ridges of the Sierra Madre, in turn descending steeply to Lamon Bay or giving way to the rough hills of the Bondoc Isthmus. Banahao’s western slopes descend to flat ground off the eastern side of Mt. Malepunyo, which lies between Mt. Banahao and the eastern ridges of the Lake Taal caldera.

The Batangas Mountains, forming a 30-mile-wide peninsula between Batangas and Tayabas Bays, lie southwest of Mt. Banahao, south of Mt. Malepunyo, and southeast of Lake Taal. The mountains drop sharply away on the south to a steep, broken coast line overlooking the Verde Island Passage, the name given that section of the Visayan Passages lying between southern Luzon and northern Mindoro. The northern reaches of the Batangas Mountains slope more gently to a generally flat farming region.

Served by a good highway and railroad network (there are no navigable streams), southern Luzon is compartmentalized by corridors that, separating the principal terrain complexes, channel military traffic. The easiest axis of advance from Manila into southern Luzon is a narrow flat along the western and southwestern shores of Laguna de Bay. From the west side of the Hagonoy Isthmus, separating Laguna de Bay and Manila Bay, two good roads, Routes 25 and 17, follow rising ground from the vicinity of Cavite to the Lake Taal escarpment at Tagaytay Ridge, where the 511th Parachute Infantry had dropped during the 11th Airborne Division’s drive from Nasugbu to Manila in February. The ground west of Lake Taal largely confines military maneuver to Route 17 from Tagaytay Ridge to the Nasugbu area. Near Nasugbu the highway turns southeast across rough ground leading to the northwest corner of Balayan Bay. A narrow, flat corridor extends along the northern shore of Balayan Bay and, passing south of Lake Taal, provides access from the west to the northern shores of Batangas Bay. A five-mile-wide corridor separating the Batangas Mountains and the Mt. Malepunyo complex connects the flats at Batangas Bay to coastal plains at Tayabas Bay. Another narrow, east-west corridor, controlled by Mt. Maquiling and associated high ground, follows the southern shore of Laguna de Bay. A third east-west corridor is a mile-wide, sharp defile between the southern section of the Mt. Maquiling complex and the northern slopes of Mt. Malepunyo.

Centering about ten miles east of Lake Taal, Mt. Malepunyo gives way on the west to the most important north-south corridor of southern Luzon–the Lipa Corridor. Connecting the southwestern shores of Laguna de Bay to the Batangas Bay plains, the Lipa Corridor is bounded on the west by the Lake Taal caldera and on the east by Mts. Malepunyo and Maquiling. At the center of the Lipa Corridor (which provides access to all the east-west corridors) lies the commercial center of Lipa, near which the Japanese had partially completed an ambitious airfield complex.

Another north-south corridor, between Mts. Maquiling and Malepunyo, on the west, and Mt. Banahao, on the east, connects the southern shore of Laguna de Bay to the northwestern corner of the Tayabas Bay plains. A third north-south corridor, less well-defined than the other two, follows the saddle between Mt. Banahao and the Sierra Madre to join the southeastern corner of Laguna de Bay to the northeastern section of the Tayabas Bay flats.

American planners clearly understood that control of the Lipa Corridor was requisite to the successful prosecution of operations in southern Luzon. XIV Corps, accordingly, planned to drive rapidly south and east through the western and central portions of southern Luzon, securing all the ground east to include the Lipa Corridor. In the course of this drive the corps would clear the northern side of the Visayan Passages east as far as Batangas Bay, at the same time securing the shores of Batangas and Balayan Bays. Then the corps would prepare to strike eastward through the three east-west corridors exiting from the Lipa Corridor, clear the remainder of southern Luzon, and secure the north side of the Visayan Passages east to the Bondoc Isthmus.

To execute this plan XIV Corps had available only the 11th Airborne Division and the separate 158th Regimental Combat Team. These two units were to execute a pincers movement into the Lipa Corridor. One arm–the 11th Airborne Division’s 511th Parachute Infantry and 187th Glider Infantry–would strike toward Lipa from the north and northwest, securing the northern end of the Lipa Corridor, the western entrance to the Laguna de Bay east-west corridor, and the western entrance to the eastwest corridor between Mts. Malepunyo and Maquiling. The other arm–the 158th RCT–would assemble near Nasugbu and attack southeast along Route 17 to Balayan Bay. Then, swinging eastward, the 158th would clear the shores of Balayan and Batangas Bays, gain control over the southern end of the Lipa Corridor, and close the western entrance to the east-west corridor between Mt. Malepunyo and the Batangas Mountains. Having executed these tasks, the 158th RCT would drive north to seize Lipa and establish contact with the 11th Airborne Division.

The operation would be launched on a bit of a shoestring, especially in the light of intelligence estimates that placed anywhere from 10,000 to 17,000 Japanese in southern Luzon. The 11th Airborne Division would strike into southern Luzon with only 7,000 effectives, all of whom had had scant rest after the division had completed its operations at Manila. The 158th RCT, also understrength, had had about two weeks rest after its arduous campaign in the Rosario-Damortis area at Lingayen Gulf. Combined, the two units had an effective strength of little more than two-thirds that of a standard infantry division, and not all this strength would be immediately available for the new offensive. Because its reinforcing units from the 24th Infantry Division had to leave Luzon for operations in the Southern Philippines, the 11th Airborne Division would have to employ its 188th Glider Infantry to protect its line of communications.

Japanese Defensive Preparations

General Yokoyama, commanding the Shimbu Group, had vested responsibility for the defense of southern Luzon in the Fuji Force, composed of the 17th Infantry (less the 3d Battalion) of the8th Division; the 3rd Battalion, reinforced, of the same division’s 31st Infantry; a provisional infantry battalion of unknown strength; a battalion and a half of mixed artillery; and elements of various 8th Division service units. Colonel Fujishige, commanding the Fuji Force (and the 17th Infantry as well), also had control for ground operational purposes of the suicide boat squadrons and base battalions of the 2nd Surface Raiding Base Force, and of Japanese naval troops who had escaped from the Manila Bay islands. Another group under Fujishige’s command were the troops organic to or attached to the 86th Airfield Battalion, a 4th Air Army ground unit stationed at Lipa.

Fujishige’s total strength numbered approximately 13,000 men, of whom no more than 3,000 were trained infantry combat effectives. Some 2,500 of his 13,000, including about 750 infantrymen, were cut off west of Lake Taal. Southwest of Tagaytay Ridge were the remnants of the West Sector Unit (built around the 3d Battalion, 31st Infantry), while in the rough hills south of Ternate was the decimated 111th Surface Raiding Base Battalion of the 2nd Surface Raiding Base Force, holed up along with most of the naval troops who remained alive.

It was not Fujishige’s mission to hold the northern shore of the Visayan Passages. Rather, General Yokoyama had directed him to prevent American forces from rounding the eastern shore of Laguna de Bay to outflank the Shimbu Group’s main defenses. General Yokoyama, from the first, left Colonel Fujishige plenty of leeway in arranging his defenses–in fact, after March 1st Yokoyama had little other choice. By that time communications had broken down between the Fuji Force and Shimbu Group headquarters, and Fujishige was on his own.

The disposition of his forces indicates that Fujishige had analyzed the military topography of southern Luzon in much the same manner as had American planners. For example, he deployed a considerable portion of his strength along a line extending from Los Baños, on the south-central shore of Laguna de Bay, southwest across Mt. Maquiling to Santo Tomas, where Routes 1 and 19 joined twelve miles north of Lipa. From this line he controlled not only the northern section of the Lipa Corridor but also the western entrance to the east-west corridor between Mts. Maquiling and Malepunyo. Fujishige also stationed troops at Tanauan, two miles south of Santo Tomas, to block a third-class road that came into the Lipa Corridor from the northeastern corner of Lake Taal, connecting that corner to Tagaytay Ridge by other poor roads that could only support light military traffic.

Fujishige’s defense of the southern entrance to the Lipa Corridor was based upon positions extending from Mt. Macolod, at the southeastern corner of Lake Taal, southeast across Route 417, the best road leading north from Batangas Bay. To protect his rear or eastern flank against surprise attack, he stationed small detachments at various road junctions in the Tayabas Bay plains. He split his best trained units–the two battalions of the 17th Infantry–into small increments. Having only these two battalions of regular infantry, he divided them among many defensive positions, apparently in the hope that he could thus bolster the effectiveness of the many third-class and provisional units that made up the bulk of his strength. He held out no central reserve.

The Fuji Force had plenty of scores to settle with both the Americans and Filipinos in southern Luzon, and from the many atrocities that occurred in the region after the 11th Airborne Division had landed at Nasugbu, it appears that the Fuji Force did not care how it went about settling those scores. First, Fujishige had lost some of his best troops–those of the West Sector Unit–to the 11th Airborne Division during February. Second, the 11th Airborne had trapped approximately another 1,350 men in the Ternate region. Third, by March 1st Allied Air Forces planes and Allied Naval Forces PT boats had sought out and destroyed almost all the suicide boats of the 2nd Surface Raiding Base Force. Fourth, southern Luzon had become a veritable hornets’ nest of guerrilla activity, creating a situation with which Colonel Fujishige was scarcely able to cope. Fifth, and probably the most embarrassing and vexing, Fil-American forces had snatched over 2,000 American and Allied civilian internees almost from under Fujishige’s eyes.

On the morning of February 24th a task force composed of the 1st Battalion, 188th Glider Infantry, elements of the 511th Parachute Infantry, attached guerrillas, and supporting artillery, tank destroyers, and amphibious tractors made a daring, carefully timed rescue of 2,147 internees from an interment camp near Los Baños on Laguna de Bay. Guerrillas and elements of the 188th Glider Infantry invested the camp by land, coming in from the west; other troops of the 188th Infantry came across Laguna de Bay by amphibious tractors, and troopers of the 511th Infantry dropped onto the camp proper. Annihilating the Japanese garrison of nearly 250, the task force escaped through enemy-controlled territory before Fujishige was able to organize a counterstroke.

The March Offensive in Southern Luzon

The northern arm of the pincers in southern Luzon began to move on March 7th, when the 187th Glider Infantry descended the steep southern slopes of Tagaytay Ridge to the northern shore of Lake Taal. Turning east, the regiment met no opposition until, on the afternoon of the 8th, it came upon Fuji Force defenses at a hill two miles west of Tanauan. With the aid of close air and artillery support the regiment overran these defenses on March 11th, but then halted pending the outcome of the 511th Infantry’s attack south through the Lipa Corridor toward Santo Tomas.

The 511th had assembled at barrio Real, seven miles north of Santo Tomas. Here Route 1, which runs from Manila to Tanauan and then east through the corridor between Mts. Maquiling and Malepunyo, joins Route 21, leading eastward, through Los Baños, along the south shore of Laguna de Bay. The 511th Infantry’s first task was to reduce Fuji Force defenses on Mt. Bijiang, a rough peak located at the northwestern corner of the Mt. Maquiling hill mass and controlling Routes 1 and 21 for about five miles south and southeast of Real. The 511th Infantry launched unsuccessful frontal attacks against Mt. Bijiang from March 10th to the 13th. Thereafter, supporting air and artillery reduced the defenses, which guerrillas finally overran on the 19th. Without waiting for this inevitable outcome, elements of the 511th had pushed down Route 1 to within a mile of Santo Tomas. Meanwhile, other troops of the regiment had moved east along Route 21 to a point about three miles short of Los Baños, where the Japanese had reorganized their defenses.

Neither the 511th Infantry nor the 187th Infantry, nor even both operating in concert, had the strength required to overrun the strong Japanese positions in the Santo Tomas–Tanauan region. Therefore, until March 23rd, the two regiments mopped up in the areas they already held, warded off numerous small-scale Japanese counterattacks, patrolled to locate Japanese defenses, and directed air and artillery bombardments on Japanese positions. Elements of the 1st Cavalry relieved both units on March 23rd.

To the southwest and south, meanwhile, the 158th RCT had made somewhat greater progress. Striking from the vicinity of Nasugbu on 4 March, the 158th Infantry secured the town of Balayan, at the northwestern corner of Balayan Bay, the same day. The regiment then drove eastward against negligible opposition, cleared the northern shores of Balayan and Batangas Bays, and on March 11th reached the town of Batangas, on the northeastern shore of Batangas Bay. On its way east the regiment had bypassed strong elements of the 2nd Surface Raiding Base Force on the Calumpan Peninsula, which separates Balayan and Batangas Bays. The regiment had to clear the peninsula to assure the security of the northern side of the Verde Island Passage and to make the shores of Balayan and Batangas Bays safe for base development; it gave the job to a reinforced battalion. In an operation marked by minor shore-to-shore operations by both Japanese and American units, the American force cleared the peninsula by March 16th. Most of the Japanese garrison escaped to islands in the Verde Island Passage or to the Lubang Islands, which control the western entrance to the Visayan Passages.

Meanwhile, other elements of the 158th Infantry had made contact with strong Japanese defenses blocking Route 417–the Batangas-Lipa road–at Mt. Macolod. Numbering some 1,250 men in all, the Japanese had the support of a 300-mm. howitzer, two 70-mm. guns, ten or more 81-mm. mortars, a few lighter mortars, and a wealth of machine guns and machine cannon, including many removed from disabled Japanese aircraft at the Lipa airstrips. The 158th Infantry, launching an attack at Mt. Macolod on March 19th, had the support of two 105-mm. and two 155-mm. howitzer battalions.

From March 19th to the 23rd,  the 158th Infantry overran outer defenses east of Route 417 and southeast of Mt. Macolod, which lay west of the road. But the regiment made little progress at Mt. Macolod proper and by March 23rd, when it had to disengage to prepare for operations on the Bicol Peninsula, the Japanese still had a firm hold on the mountain.

Thus, by March 23rd the 11th Airborne Division and the 158th RCT had closed with the Fuji Force main line of resistance at the northern and southern entrances to the Lipa Corridor, had cleared the shores of Balayan and Batangas Bays, and had secured the northern side of the Verde Island Passage. Simultaneously, elements of the 11th Airborne Division had considerably reduced the threat to its line of communications posed by the Fuji Force units isolated west of Lake Taal, although it was April 1st before the 188th Infantry overcame the last organized resistance in the rough hills south of Ternate.

Sixth Army plans to speed the clearing of the rest of the northern side of the Visayan Passages by striking into the Bicol Peninsula caused Krueger to relieve the 158th RCT at Mt. Macolod. Initially, Krueger had intended to relieve the 158th RCT on 17 March, simultaneously pulling the 511th Infantry (less 3d Battalion) out of the lines in southern Luzon to act as Sixth Army Reserve for the Bicol Peninsula operation. Upon re-examination of his plan, Krueger began to fear that with the strength left to it the 11th Airborne Division might find it impossible to hold the gains made in southern Luzon by mid-March. Also, he learned that the Allied Air Forces and the Allied Naval Forces could not make ready for the Bicol attack as soon as they had anticipated. Accordingly, Krueger postponed the Bicol invasion a week, giving himself time to move the 1st Cavalry Division into southern Luzon before the 158th RCT had to leave.

Desperately in need of rest and rehabilitation after its fighting in Manila and against the Shimbu Group in the mountains east of the city, the 1st Cavalry Division got only a ten-day breather before moving into southern Luzon. The 43d Division took over from the cavalry unit on the Shimbu front on March 12th, and on the 23rd the 1st Cavalry Division relieved all elements of the 11th Airborne Division in the Santo Tomas-Tanauan area at the northern end of the Lipa Corridor. On the same day, in a rapid truck movement around the west side of Lake Taal, the 11th Airborne Division relieved the 158th RCT in the Mt. Macolod sector.

XIV Corps now divided southern Luzon so as to place Lipa, Mt. Macolod, and Mt. Malepunyo in the 11th Airborne Division’s sector in the south; the 1st Cavalry Division had the region to the north. General Griswold, the corps commander, directed the 11th Airborne to complete the reduction of Japanese defenses at Mt. Macolod, seize Lipa, and clear Route 19, the main road through the Lipa Corridor, for five miles north of Lipa. The 1st Cavalry Division would seize Santo Tomas and Tanauan and advance south along Route 19 to gain contact with the 11th Airborne Division.

The 11th Airborne Division again faced the problem of assembling sufficient strength to execute its missions. The division controlled only one battalion of the 511th Infantry, and one of the 188th Infantry’s two battalions was still engaged south of Ternate. General Swing organized his remaining units into two regimental task forces. The 187th Infantry, reinforced by tanks, guerrillas, and artillery, was to seize Mt. Macolod; the 188th Infantry, less its 1st Battalion but with the 511th Infantry’s 3rd Battalion attached, would strike toward Lipa up roads lying east of Mt. Macolod. Tank destroyers and guerrillas reinforced the 188th Infantry’s groupment. The 1st Cavalry Division assigned responsibility for its drive south through the Lipa Corridor to the 2d Cavalry Brigade. The 1st Cavalry Brigade would secure the division’s rear area, mop up at Mt. Maquiling, and advance east along the south shore of Laguna de Bay as far as Los Baños.

Except at Mt. Macolod, the task of clearing the Lipa Corridor proved unexpectedly easy. Leaving the town of Batangas on March 24th, the 188th Infantry task force encountered no serious resistance until, on the evening of the 26th, it reached hill defenses two and a half miles southeast of Lipa held by the Fuji Force’s 86th Airfield Battalion. The next day the task force overran the Japanese positions, and during the following night most of the Japanese remaining in the Lipa area withdrew eastward to Mt. Malepunyo, after allegedly setting fire to the town. Actually, American air and artillery bombardments had already battered Lipa beyond recognition. The fire, no matter how started, could have done little additional damage.

The 2d Cavalry Brigade had moved equally fast. The 8th Cavalry took Santo Tomas on March 24th after a sharp fight; Tanauan fell on the 26th as Japanese resistance throughout the 2d Brigade’s sector began to collapse. On the 27th, XIV Corps reassigned responsibility for the capture of Lipa to the 1st Cavalry Division, and behind close air support that completed the destruction of the town, the 8th Cavalry secured Lipa against little opposition on March 29th. That evening the regiment made contact with patrols of the 188th Infantry task force south of Lipa.

Meanwhile, troops of the 7th Cavalry had advanced about five miles east into the corridor between Mts. Maquiling and Malepunyo. The 1st Cavalry Brigade had been making good progress along the Route 21 corridor on the south shore of Laguna de Bay–it took Los Baños on the 25th, and by the 29th had troops four miles beyond that town. Reconnaissance elements moved across Laguna de Bay in small craft and landed near the southeastern corner of the lake, finding few signs of Japanese. The 1st Cavalry Division and the 188th Infantry task force had completed their shares in the operations to secure the Lipa Corridor and both were ready to swing eastward in strength through the east-west corridors. At Mt. Macolod, however, the 187th Infantry task force was facing a far different situation.

The 187th began its attack at Mt. Macolod on March 24th, but it was not until  April 1st that the task force, having encircled the landward sides of the terrain feature, was able to concentrate its entire strength against the main Japanese defenses. Then, down to an effective strength of less than 1,250 men, the task force launched an unsuccessful assault against the Japanese defenders–300 men holding well-prepared positions in excellent defensive terrain.

There was a hiatus in operations at Mt. Macolod from April 3rd to the 17th, when the bulk of the 187th Infantry concentrated near Lipa. The regiment renewed the attack on the 18th with reinforcements including a company each of medium tanks, tank destroyers, and 4.2-inch mortars, and over 500 guerrillas. By April 21st the reinforced regiment had overcome the last resistance, completing the job that the 158th RCT had started on March 19th.

Sweeping Eastward

While the 187th Infantry had been reducing the defenses at Mt. Macolod, the rest of XIV Corps had been driving east beyond the Lipa Corridor. Two factors prompted General Griswold to strike east before Mt. Macolod fell. First, General Krueger was putting pressure on the corps to clear the Tayabas Bay section of the northern side of the Visayan Passages quickly. Second, in late March, the Sixth Army commander had directed XI and XIV Corps to gain contact along the eastern shore of Laguna de Bay in order to prevent troops of the Fuji Force from escaping from southern Luzon in order to join the main body of the Shimbu Group.

Griswold planned to place the emphasis on his drive eastward on his left, the 1st Cavalry Division’s sector, not only because of Krueger’s orders to make contact with XI Corps east of Laguna de Bay but also because the 11th Airborne Division was, in late March, too scattered and too weak to undertake a concerted attack. As of March 30th the 187th Infantry still had its hands full at Mt Macolod; the 511th Infantry, less 3d Battalion, was still in Sixth Army Reserve for the Bicol Peninsula operation; and one battalion of the 188th Infantry was still occupied west of Lake Taal. Griswold therefore expected little more from the 11th Airborne Division, at least for the time being, than reconnaissance eastward toward Tayabas Bay from the southern part of Lipa Corridor.

The new XIV Corps drive started on March 30th as the 12th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Brigade, struck eastward from the vicinity of Los Baños. The regiment moved first to Calauan, seven miles beyond Los Baños, and then marched southward along a secondary road toward San Pablo, at the eastern exit to the east-west corridor between Mts. Maquiling and Malepunyo. Strong Japanese forces held defenses in rocky, bare-sloped hills between Calauan and San Pablo, but in an attack lasting from April 1st to the 5th the 12th Cavalry overran those positions, losing 20 men killed and 65 wounded while killing about 140 Japanese. On the last day of this fight the 12th Cavalry made contact with 5th Cavalry patrols coming north from San Pablo, seven miles south of Calauan. The 5th and 7th Cavalry Regiments had fought their way through the Mt. Maquiling-Mt. Malepunyo corridor against stiff but rather disorganized Japanese opposition and had reached San Pablo on April 2nd.

On  April 5th the 1st Cavalry Brigade and elements of the 8th Cavalry from the 2nd Brigade began patrolling northeast, east, and southeast from San Pablo and Calauan, rounding the southeast corner of Laguna de Bay and probing into the north-south corridor between Mts. Malepunyo and Banahao. Resistance melted away and the cavalrymen encountered only small, disorganized groups of Japanese in the area patrolled. On April 6th the 5th Cavalry made contact with XI Corps troops at the southeastern corner of Laguna de Bay, thus completing one of the XIV Corps tasks.

Twenty-odd miles to the south, meanwhile, the 11th Airborne Division had accomplished far more than General Griswold had expected of it. Interpreting its reconnaissance role in the broadest fashion, the 11th Airborne Division on 1 April had started pushing elements of the 188th Infantry east through the corridor between Mt. Malepunyo and the Batangas Mountains. The leading troops emerged at Tiaong, in the north-south corridor between Mts. Malepunyo and Banahao, on  April 3rd, and the next day established contact with 5th Cavalry patrols from San Pablo, eight miles to the north. The 188th Infantry next dispatched patrols into the Tayabas Plains region south of Mt. Banahao, finding the plains free of Japanese and under the control of Filipino guerrillas. When on April 6th troops of the 188th Infantry reached Lucena, the largest town on Tayabas Bay, XIV Corps had finished the job of securing the northern side of the Visayan Passages in its zone.

Mop-up in Southern Luzon

From Lucena, Route 1 ran eastward across the Bondoc Isthmus to Atimonan on Lamon Bay; Route 23 went north from Lucena through the corridor between Mt. Banahao and the Sierra Madre to a junction with Route 21 at Pagsanjan, point of contact between the XI and XIV Corps. On  April 7th patrols of the 11th Airborne Division started north from Lucena and 1st Cavalry Division patrols left Pagsanjan on their way south. Making contact on  April 10th, the patrols from the two divisions secured the Mt. Banahao-Sierra Madre corridor against negligible resistance.

General Krueger had already directed XIV Corps to continue eastward from the Banahao-Sierra Madre corridor to the shores of Lamon Bay in order to seal off the Bicol Peninsula and make ready to launch a drive southeast through the peninsula to gain contact with the 158th RCT, coming northwest. Accordingly, on April 11th a company of the 188th Infantry, meeting little opposition, followed Route 1 across the Bondoc Isthmus to Atimonan. The previous day troops of the 5th Cavalry had reached Lamon Bay at Mauban, eighteen miles northwest of Atimonan. Strategically, the campaign in southern Luzon had ended–the only task still facing XIV Corps was to track down and destroy organized remnants of the Fuji Force.

Before the beginning of April XIV Corps had learned that the Fuji Force was withdrawing into the Mt. Malepunyo hill complex. Indeed, from the inception of operations in southern Luzon, Colonel Fujishige had included such a withdrawal in his plans and had long since begun preparations for a last-ditch stand at Mt. Malepunyo. But Fujishige had expected his Lipa Corridor defenses to hold out longer than they did, and he had not anticipated that his units west of Lake Taal would be cut off. As a result, he had gathered only 4,000 troops at Mt. Malepunyo by early April; of these no more than 1,800 were combat effectives, and he was unable to man many of his prepared defenses. Over 2,000 more troops of the Fuji Force were alive on southern Luzon in early April, but they had little hope of reaching Mt. Malepunyo.

The forces available to XIV Corps for an attack against Mt. Malepunyo included only the 8th Cavalry, one squadron of the 7th Cavalry, and the 511th Parachute Infantry, released from Sixth Army Reserve on April 12th. The 1st Cavalry Brigade was committed to the thrust into the Bicol Peninsula; the 7th Cavalry, less one squadron, had moved north of Laguna de Bay to relieve XI Corps units in the Santa Maria Valley; the 187th and 188th Infantry Regiments were needed for mopping up and security missions throughout the rest of southern Luzon.

During the period April 6th-12th patrols had discovered that the principal Fuji Force defenses were located in the northwestern quadrant of the Malepunyo complex, and by the 16th preliminary attacks had compressed resistance into an area around Mt. Mataasna-Bundoc, a peak 2,375 feet high at the northwestern shoulder of the hill mass. Further attacks from April 17th thru 21st, productive of limited results, served mainly to illustrate the fact that more strength was needed. Accordingly, XIV Corps added the 188th Infantry to the attacking force, simultaneously unifying the command under Headquarters, 11th Airborne Division.

On April 27th, following two days’ bombardment by seven battalions of artillery, the 511th Infantry, the 188th Infantry, the 8th Cavalry, one squadron of the 7th Cavalry, and almost 1,000 attached guerrillas launched a final attack. By coincidence, Colonel Fujishige had started to withdraw his remaining troops eastward to Mt. Banahao that very day, and so found his defensive and withdrawal plans completely upset. By dark on the 30th the combined forces under 11th Airborne Division control had overcome organized resistance at Mt. Malepunyo. Since April 6th Colonel Fujishige had lost almost. 2,500 men killed in the futile defense of the Malepunyo hill mass.

Colonel Fujishige ultimately gathered over 2,000 troops along the upper slopes of Mt. Banahao, including a few men who infiltrated through XIV Corps lines from the region west of Lake Taal, The Fuji Force commander and his remnants were quite content to remain in hiding for the rest of the war, and somehow 1st Cavalry Division and guerrilla patrols failed to discover them. At the end of the war the colonel came down off Mt. Banahao to surrender with nearly 2,000 men.

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#1…The US 11th Airborne and Filipino Militia liberate Los Banos…

As Allied forces retook territory the Japanese had wrested from them at the beginning of the war in the Pacific, the fate of prisoners of war (POWs) and civilian internees was of major concern to the Allied high command. This was particularly true in the Philippines, where thousands of survivors of the Bataan Death March, as well as American and European civilians, were being held prisoner.
General Douglas MacArthur, the U.S. commander in the Philippines, ordered his subordinates to make every effort to liberate camps in their areas of operation as quickly as possible. Daring raids were organized to free prisoners and internees ahead of the attacking American forces, for it was suspected that the Japanese captors would slaughter their charges before they could be rescued. These fears were not unjustified–on more than one occasion, POWs had been slaughtered by their guards.
The former University of the Philippines Agricultural School at Los Baños, a town on the island of Luzon some 40 miles southeast of Manila, had been converted into an internment camp for more than 2,000 civilians who had had the misfortune of falling into Japanese hands at the beginning of the war. The 2,122 internees who were at the camp in the late winter of 1945 were of many nationalities, though the majority were American, and of every age, including infants. For more than three years, the internees at Los Baños, along with POWs in other camps, had waited patiently for the day when their liberators would arrive. On January 9, 1945, the U.S. Sixth Army waded ashore at Lingayen Gulf and began moving south. Three weeks later the Eighth Army landed at Nasugbu and began moving north. Within a month, the advancing U.S. forces were on the doorstep of Manila. For the occupants of the Los Baños camp, rescue appeared imminent.
As the advancing U.S. forces drew nearer and nearer to Manila, General MacArthur became concerned that the Japanese might decide to slaughter the American POWs and other Allied civilians under their control. During the Sixth Army’s movement south, troops liberated American and other Allied POWs in several camps.
One of the most spectacular liberation efforts was that conducted by the 6th Ranger Battalion at Cabanatuan. A Ranger task force, assisted by Filipino guerrillas, penetrated deep into Japanese territory and, after crawling more than a mile on their bellies, attacked Cabanatuan prison and freed some 500 POWs, bringing them 20 miles to safety. Nearer Manila, elements of the 1st Cavalry assaulted the campus of Santo Tomas University and freed more than 3,500 civilian internees.
Los Baños was some 25 miles southeast of Manila and thus outside the primary line of advance for the American forces. Located on Laguna de Bay, a large freshwater lake, Los Baños was accessible to amphibious and ground forces. Because Los Baños was located in the 11th Airborne Division’s area of operations, a third means of attack was also possible: a paratroop assault from the skies.
The 11th Airborne Division had arrived in the southwest Pacific in mid-1944. Under the command of Maj. Gen. Joe Swing, the 11th had undergone theater training in New Guinea prior to taking part in the invasion of Leyte. The 503rd Regimental Combat Team and the 11th were the only American airborne forces to fight in the Pacific. After Leyte, the parachute elements of the 11th moved to Mindoro, while the glider troops prepared for an amphibious landing at Nasugbu Bay. On January 31 the 188th Glider Regiment landed at Nasugbu with the Eighth Army. Four days later, the airborne infantry of the 511th Airborne Regimental Combat team jumped onto Tagaytay Ridge. Because of a shortage of available transport, the 475th Parachute Field Artillery and other support units jumped in the following day.
Once on the ground on Luzon, the 11th Airborne began working its way toward Manila after the parachute and glider elements had linked up. By mid-February, the 11th was engaged in combat along the so-called Genko Line, a fortified system of interlocking pillboxes running along the south side of Manila. Although the division was already engaged in heavy combat, General Swing and members of his staff were well aware that they were responsible for liberating the Los Baños internees. The problem was that they had not yet determined the best method for carrying out the mission.
The Filipino guerrilla groups operating in the area played a key role in the liberation of the camp. The Hunters-ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps) Guerrillas, made up originally of former cadets of the Philippine Military Academy, were one of the most active groups, along with ex-ROTC students and other former college students. Other groups included President Quezon’s Own Guerrillas (the PQOG), the Chinese Guerrillas of Luzon and the Hukbalahaps, a Marxist group with their own agenda for the Philippines. To bring some order to the guerrilla effort, U.S. Army Major Jay D. Vanderpool had formed a combined guerrilla command known as the General Guerrilla Command (GGC) of Luzon. The GGC would coordinate operations against Los Baños.
Inside the camp, there was some dissension as to whether the internees should make any effort to make contact with the Americans and effect a rescue. Los Baños was filled with civilians, with the exception of 12 U.S. Navy nurses. Some of the men were of military age, however, and one or two had tried to enlist in the U.S. forces shortly after Pearl Harbor but had been unsuccessful.
On the night of February 12, 1945, Freddy Zervoulakas, a 19-year-old Greek-Filipino, slipped out of the camp and made contact with the guerrillas. He was sent back into the camp with a copy of a letter from Major Vanderpool instructing the guerrillas to make every effort to free the internees–but the internee committee responsible for governing the camp decided that it would be best for the internees to do nothing. Nevertheless, several male prisoners slipped under the wire in the days before the rescue.
On Sunday, February 18, Major Henry Burgess, commander of the 1st Paratrooper Battalion, was ordered to withdraw his battalion from positions on the Genko Line and proceed to Manila. While the battalion rested, Burgess reported to the 11th Airborne Division headquarters, then located at Paranaque. The 26-year-old major met first with Colonel Douglas Quant, the division G-3 (operations officer), who informed him that his unit was going to be involved in the liberation of 2,000 civilian prisoners from the camp at Los Baños. Burgess spent the remainder of the day at headquarters, meeting with division Intelligence and Operations and planning the mission.
The following day Burgess met Pete Miles, an internee who had escaped from the camp the previous day and been conveyed by guerrillas to the 11th Airborne Division. Miles provided information of the layout of the camp and the schedules of the guards, details that were essential to complete the mission precisely and without needlessly endangering the internees.
The division plan called for a multi-pronged assault on the camp. A parachute company would launch the raid by jumping into a drop zone inside or adjacent to the camp at dawn on the day of the attack. The division recon platoon would cross the bay in advance of the main party, make contact with the guerrillas and organize them to attack the camp sentries exactly at H-hour. Major Burgess’ battalion, minus one company, would proceed across Laguna de Bay aboard amphibious vehicles and provide the main body of the attacking force. A combat team was to attack overland from Manila on Highway 1, with the objective of providing a blocking force to cut off any Japanese reinforcements.
For the parachute assault, the 511th’s regimental commander, Lt. Col. Ed Lahti, selected B Company of the 1st Battalion, commanded by 1st Lt. John M. Ringler, because it was closest to full strength. Heavy combat in recent days had severely depleted the ranks of all the division’s units.
One unique factor in the Los Baños mission was that the planning for the raid itself was generally left up to the men who would do the job. Ringler personally planned the airborne phase of the mission, down to selecting a 500-foot-jump altitude instead of the usual 700­1,000 feet, so the men would be exposed for less time. Ringler also determined that the drop formation should fly three V’s-in-trail of three planes each because of the small drop zone. Nine Douglas C-47s from the 65th Troop Carrier Squadron of the 54th Troop Carrier Group were selected to make the drop.
The division reconnaissance platoon under Lieutenant George Skau played a major role in the Los Baños operation. Skau’s 31-man platoon would be responsible for infiltrating into the area around the camp prior to the raid and linking up with the guerrillas, then integrating the indigenous forces into the rescue effort. The soldiers of the platoon were typically of the ‘rugged outdoorsman’ variety, and their familiarity with hiking, camping and hunting especially suited them for missions deep behind enemy lines.
On the evening of February 21, some 36 hours before the planned attack, Lieutenant Skau’s recon platoon moved out by truck for the barrio of Wulilyos, where they met Filipino guides and the crews of three bancas (sailing vessels ordinarily used for fishing and trade in the coastal waters of the Philippines). The first banca moved out at 2000 hours with Skau and his headquarters group aboard. A second, larger banca set sail some 15 minutes later. The third was meant to sail right behind with the bulk of the platoon’s supplies and men, but the Filipino captain discovered that the rudder was broken. Repairs took two hours.
The trip across Laguna de Bay was planned to take two or three hours. But it was not until the wee morning hours that the first banca finally touched shore near Los Baños after an eight-hour journey due to light winds that failed to fill the sails. One of the bancas was still in the middle of the lake at daybreak and making little progress. The Filipino crew spent the rest of the day trying every trick in the book to get the heavily laden vessel to its destination, but it was well into the evening when thebanca reached shore. The paratroopers of the recon platoon had spent most of the day crouching uncomfortably beneath the side rails of the ship to avoid being seen by the Japanese patrol boats that still ruled the waters.
After reaching shore with only a portion of his men, Skau began making plans to carry out his mission with the small force that had landed with him. While his men rested out of sight, Skau met with the guerrilla leaders and two escaped internees in a schoolhouse in the barrio of Nanhaya. Ben Edwards, one of the former prisoners, sketched the layout of the camp on the school blackboard for the paratroopers. Assuming that the last banca would arrive in time for the rescue, Skau broke his group into six teams and assigned from eight to 12 guerrillas to each one. Edwards and the other internee, Freddy Zervoulakos, each accompanied one of the teams. Late that evening, the thirdbanca finally reached shore. Shortly after midnight, the recon platoon teams began moving out from their rendezvous point at the schoolhouse for their attack positions.
The amphibious element boarded amtracs and moved out at 0500 on February 23. Fifty-four amtracs from the 672nd Amphibian Tractor Battalion set out across Laguna de Bay from Mamatid, their noisy engines giving notice that the attacking force was on its way. In the pitch-black, pre-dawn darkness, a lack of landmarks forced the tractor drivers to navigate solely by compass.
At Nichols Field outside Manila, the paratroopers boarded nine C-47s at 0530. Half an hour later, the pilots started their engines. After takeoff, each of the jump planes orbited over the field until all nine were airborne and had joined the formation. At 0640 the C-47s headed southeast over Laguna de Bay toward Los Baños. Fifteen minutes later, the pilots signaled a six-minute warning by turning on the red paratrooper jump lights in the cargo compartments of their airplanes. At 0700 Ringler stepped from the door of the lead C-47; the Los Baños raid was in progress.
As the jump planes passed over the camp, the Japanese sentries were in the process of changing the guard, and the internees were lined up for morning roll call. The plan called for the recon platoon to attack the sentry positions and other Japanese strongholds as the troopers were floating to earth, but only two of the five teams were in position at H-hour. At the sight of the drop planes over Los Baños, the other three teams had to abandon stealth and rushed headlong for the camp. Nevertheless, the attack went off more or less as planned. By 0715, when Ringler had finished organizing his men and the first of the jump teams reached the camp perimeter, Los Baños was already under attack from three sides. A number of the guards, most of whom had turned out without weapons for morning calisthenics, were killed, while others fled for the hills.
By the time the amtracs arrived from the shores of Laguna de Bay, the gun battle was practically over. Guards of the overwhelmed Japanese garrison had either been killed, were hiding, or had fled. Among the latter was Warrant Officer Sadaaki Konishi, the tyrannical second-in-command at the camp. Largely because of Konishi’s policy of withholding food, the paratroopers found a starving horde of internees, many of whom weighed barely 100 pounds.
The original evacuation plan had been for a task force made up of men from the 188th Glider Regiment under Colonel Robert Soule to fight their way down National Highway 1 to Los Baños, then evacuate the internees overland to Manila. The amtrac battalion was only to deliver the bulk of Major Burgess’ paratrooper battalion, then return to Mamatid empty while the rescuers returned with the internees. After an hour at the camp, however, Burgess determined from the sound of firing that Soule’s task force was still at least three hours away from Los Baños. At the same time, he was well aware that thousands of Japanese troops were within striking distance of his location.
At the last minute the plans were changed–Burgess decided not to wait for the task force. The internees were to be evacuated by amtrac, and the paratroopers would return to Manila with Soule’s task force. Burgess directed the amtrac commander, Lt. Col. Joe Gibbs, to order his men to load their vehicles with internees, then evacuate them to Mamatid and shuttle back and forth until both the internees and members of the raiding party were all withdrawn to safety.
Organizing the liberated prisoners, most of whom were milling about the camp with little sense of order, was a problem; the internees were ecstatic about being rescued, but were hardly in a mood to fall into any kind of formation. Major Burgess observed that the internees seemed to be drifting in advance of fires that had been started in some of the barracks during the raid, so he ordered his men to set fire to the camp in such a manner that the fires would lead the internees in the direction of the main gate, where the amtracs were waiting.
By 0900, two hours after the commencement of the raid, some order had begun to appear among the internees. Those who could do so had begun the two-mile walk to the beach, while those who were unable to make the hike were loaded aboard amtracs for the journey. After the infirm were evacuated, several amtracs began to aid the walking by providing a lift to the beach.
As the internees moved out of the camp, Major Burgess and his troopers began a systematic search to ensure that all internees were accounted for and that none were still in the camp. The soldiers did as thorough a job as possible. Because many of the Filipino guerrillas disappeared into the jungle after the raid, many Americans liberated at Los Baños never knew to what extent the irregular troops had contributed to their release.
By mid-day, the Soule task force had advanced in the face of enemy resistance to a point just outside Los Baños. By then the evacuation by amtrac was proceeding quite well, as the officers of the task force could see from activities on the lake. Colonel Soule elected to halt his advance at the San Juan River and to maintain a bridgehead in the event the paratroopers had to withdraw by land as planned.
From Los Baños, the internees proceeded to the village of San Antonio, where the head of the marching column arrived at about 1000. From there, the amtracs, filled with evacuees, formed up into columns of three and slid into the waters of the lake for the two-hour journey to Mamatid. While on the lake, several of the amtracs came under fire from Japanese shore positions. Little damage was done, although one amtrac had to offload its cargo of evacuees and be towed to shore by another vessel.
By noon the remainder of the internees and the rear guard of the 1st Battalion had reached San Antonio. Burgess still had not made contact with Soule, nor was he in contact with the 11th Division headquarters. Essentially, he was on his own. Around that time General Swing flew over the beach in a light liaison aircraft. After Burgess advised the general by radio that the raid had been successful and that he planned to evacuate the remainder of the group and his own men with the amtracs that were on their way back to San Antonio, the young major was flabbergasted at his commander’s reply: Could he perhaps liberate the entire town of Los Baños, then move west to link up with the 188th and keep possession of the territory they had gained?
Burgess was in the middle of contested territory with what, for all practical purposes, was a raiding party, and with strong enemy forces within easy striking distance. He did not answer the general’s request, but after carefully considering his situation, he simply switched his radio off and did not acknowledge that he had received the message.
At around 1500 the last amtrac shoved off from San Antonio with the final load of internees and troops. At Mamatid the internees moved to the former New Bilibid prison, where they prepared for the journey to their homes in the United States and elsewhere.
While the liberation of the internees from Los Baños went off without a hitch, there is a dark epilogue to the story. After the 11th Airborne Division paratroopers left the area, the Japanese moved back in. Ironically, the first Americans to re-enter the vicinity of Los Baños were the same paratroopers who had liberated the camp only days before. What they found in the barrios surrounding the camp this time was both nauseating and pitiful. Whole families had been tied to the stilts supporting their houses, then the dwellings had been set ablaze, collapsing around their helpless former inhabitants. Burgess estimated that more than 1,500 Filipinos had been cruelly killed, evidently in retaliation for the rescue of the internees.
There is some question as to the identity of those who did the killing. The Japanese in the area were reinforced by pro-Japanese Filipino units commanded by Japanese officers and NCOs. Many of the villages in the region were pro-Japanese ‘Makapili’ as well–residents at odds with their countrymen who favored a return to American control.
One Japanese soldier later identified as having played a part in the reprisals in the area–including the murder of an American family that had lived near Los Baños and had not been interned–was Warrant Officer Sadaaki Konishi, the sadistic second-in-command of the camp at Los Baños. After the war, Konishi was implicated by certain Filipinos, tried for his crimes, and then executed as a war criminal.